Marc Benioff thinks Salesforce is heading in the right direction on diversity. He just wishes the company had started sooner.
During a #leanintogether fireside chat that kicked off the Women’s Leadership Summit at Dreamforce Thursday, Benioff commented that Dreamforce had never included such a summit before. “Why is that? It’s terrible, it’s crazy,” he said, adding that the event would become a regular part of the annual megaconference that drew the registration of 170,000 this year.
“The thing is, at some point you shouldn’t need it,” responded Re/code executive editor and co-founder Kara Swisher, who moderated the conversation with Benioff and Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris.
Salesforce has been making efforts to hire and promote more women and equalize pay for its employees, and over the summer began releaseing statistics on the ethnic and gender diversity of its staff on its website. The stats, at roughly 70 percent male and 67 percent white, reveal the company is more or less as white and male as most Silicon Valley companies.
Swisher said that for all the talk in Silicon Valley of getting more women into leadership roles, she hadn’t seen a significant shift in the gender breakdown of top positions. Conversations about equality often seem to boil down to “feel good” lip service, she remarked.
Swisher acknowledged Dreamforce had put plenty of women on stage this year, but said the number of women specifically in technical positions had been lacking.
“We have plenty of technical women on stage,” said Benioff, asserting that Salesforce was “mindful ahead of time” about how it would design speaker lineups.
He referenced specific female speakers hailing from STEM fields, including surgeon Laura Esserman, head of breast cancer research and treatment at University of California-San Francisco. Esserman spoke at the conference Wednesday about the ATHENA Breast Health Network, a breast cancer research project where she is the principal investigator.
Swisher at points steered the conversation toward racial and ethnic diversity in technology. When she started to comment on ethnic diversity at Salesforce, the CEO interjected that the company was dealing with systemic issues but that diversity was still important to the company.
When Parker spoke during the fireside chat, he said he wished that the company had implemented a leadership program for women sooner and said prioritization of issues of diversity – whether in relation to gender or race – can be a challenge.
“We don’t have all the answers,” he said.
He suggested making an effort to get more women into engineering education programs. Women with talents that can be applied in tech are out there, he said. “It’s just they’re not all at the levels (of leadership) they should be.”
Swisher asked Benioff and Harris at the end of the conversation what grade they would give Salesforce for diversity, chiding that the executives could give themselves a "D," in reference to a story she had told earlier about her son. (Her son had earned a "D" on something in school, and had commented to Swisher that the grade was better than an "F," and Swisher had been baffled by the misplaced confidence.)
Parker echoed Swisher's earlier joke, saying that a "D" was better than an "F." Benioff pushed back.
"I'm not giving myself a 'D,' beause look at this, isn’t this amazing?" he said, indicated the packed audience of 700-800 people. "But I'm also not giving myself an 'A' -- it's probably somewhere in between."
"I think we're moving it more towards the ideal," he said.
This post has been modified to correct occasional mispellings of Swisher's last name.